How a new civil rights law is being used against state trooper charged with beat…

Among the six charges facing a Delaware State Police trooper accused of assaulting two teen boys is a new state law making it a felony for those with governmental-issued powers, such as police officers, to knowingly violate someone’s civil rights.

The deprivation of civil rights charge was the third count in the indictment filed against Delaware State Police Trooper Dempsey R. Walters, making it the first time state prosecutors used the act since being signed into law in October, Delaware Attorney General Kathy Jennings said Tuesday.

“In this case, it is clear that the reason that charge has been brought is because a defenseless juvenile was handcuffed in the back of a police vehicle and he was assaulted,” Jennings said.

What prompted this new law?

The deprivation of civil rights law was part of a set of legislation introduced by Delaware lawmakers following the May 25, 2020, murder of George Floyd by former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin. In this case, Chauvin was acting under the color of law when depriving Floyd of his rights.

Delaware’s deprivation of civil rights bill was introduced in June 2021 by Rep. Kendra Johnson, chair of the Delaware Legislative Black Caucus. The Democrat who represents areas near New Castle and Bear could not be reached for comment, but Johnson has been active for years in bringing reform to policing.

She sponsored House Bill 206, which was signed into law this year. This legislation changes the Council on Police Training, which holds hearings for disciplinary actions and can suspend or revoke an officer’s certification. The group is being renamed to the Police Officer Standards and Training Commission and will now have the authority to take action if an officer has a criminal past or has been decertified in a different jurisdiction.

It can also issue subpoenas for witnesses, documents and any other evidence needed for a hearing. All decisions made by the commission will be public.

NAACP Delaware State Conference of Branches President Richard Smith, who has been vocal about police brutality against people of color and poor whites, said the Delaware Department of Justice did a good job in investigating the matter and bringing charges against Walters.

“They’re on the right track,” he said, adding he wants to see other officers involved in this matter being disciplined or charged with a crime.

A state police spokesperson told Delaware Online/The News Journal that the agency will be looking to see if other officers violated policies.

“When an incident involving the Delaware State Police occurs, we follow a bifurcated process,” Sgt. India Sturgis, a police spokesperson, said on Tuesday. “First and foremost, we prioritize the criminal investigation as was announced today. The next step in the process is for DSP to identify any potential policy violations committed by troopers on the scene.”

WHAT HAPPENED? Delaware state trooper indicted amid investigation into assault of teen pranking his home

Why the new law was used

In announcing the indictment filed against the 29-year-old trooper Tuesday, the state Department of Justice released Walters’ body-cam video showing him punching a 15-year-old boy, who was handcuffed while in the back seat of a state police SUV last month.

The boy had been pranking homes in Elsmere by knocking on doors, then running away in an act also known as “ding-dong ditch.” One of the homes the boy pranked on Aug. 21 belonged to Walters, who called it in as an attempted home invasion resulting in multiple agencies, including K-9 units and the state police helicopter, to search for the pranksters.

Prior to punching the 15-year-old in the face twice, the indictment said the boy was face-down on the ground as another trooper was trying to handcuff him. That’s when Walters came up and struck the boy in the back of the neck and head with his knee.

That was captured by several police cameras.

The deprivation of civil rights is a Class B felony that carries a minimum of two years in prison, Jennings said.

Walters was also charged with second-degree assault, a felony; two counts of third-degree assault, misdemeanors; and two counts of official misconduct, also misdemeanors.

One of the misdemeanor assaults and official misconduct Walters was charged with came after investigators said Walters and a Newport Police officer went to the home of a 17-year-old boy and, at gunpoint, removed him from his house, according to the indictment.

The 17-year-old and his friend had not been involved in the ding-dong ditch prank and Walters had had a run-in with the older teen the week before — while the trooper was off duty.

Addressing the public’s concerns

Walters, who has been with Delaware State Police for about seven years, remains on suspension — without pay or benefits — according to State Police Col. Melissa Zebley who spoke about the incident Tuesday.

“I can assure you all and the community we serve that he never worked for one more minute as a Delaware State Trooper following his actions that evening,” Zebley said, adding Walters’ actions “fall outside of our policies, our training, our core values.”

Zebley said they reviewed Walters’ body camera footage from the Aug. 21 incident and notified the Delaware Department of Justice the following morning.

Col. Melissa Zebley, of the Delaware State Police, speaks at a press conference announcing charges filed against a state trooper.

She added that the department is conducting an internal review and reinforcing its policies to address potential public concerns.

“We recognize the gravity of the situation and assure you all that we are taking every possible step to prevent such things from happening in the future,” she said.

Contact Esteban Parra at (302) 324-2299 or [email protected].

This article originally appeared on Delaware News Journal: Delaware state trooper charged with beating teen faces new state law

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